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Rayyan Al-Shawaf


A Fateful Clash

American missionaries in the Levant.

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There are a couple of troubling aspects to Makdisi's analysis of the missionary enterprise. Unfortunately, missionary attitudes occupy him unduly—so much so, that he undermines his own criticism of those missionaries ignorant of Islam and the culture of Levantine Arabs. For example, Jonas King, who by Makdisi's own admission mastered Arabic and became "immersed in local customs and manners, in dress, and in habit," nevertheless draws the author's ire for his supercilious attitude to local culture. This raises the disturbing possibility that, however important Makdisi considers hard knowledge of Levantine Arab culture and Islam, he attaches even greater importance to affinity for them.

Separately, Makdisi seems to think that because pre-19th-century conflict in Mount Lebanon—by his own account violent and incessant—was not sectarian in nature, the subsequent coalescence of a Druze-Maronite rivalry represents a major social deterioration. (The Druze are an offshoot of Ismaili Shiite Islam.) And yet of that Druze-Maronite conflict and anti-Christian violence in Mount Lebanon and beyond, his assessment involves a measure of prevarication. Grappling with the indiscriminate slaughter of Maronite and other Christian civilians by Druze combatants in the Druze-Maronite war of 1860, all Makdisi can come up with is a feeble reiteration of a Druze-friendly missionary couple's question as to what the reaction of indignant Western Christians would have been had the Maronites massacred the Druze. But the point is that the Maronites did not massacre the Druze—even though they might well have done so had they had the chance—and that the Druze committed inexcusable slaughter on a wide scale. Of the subsequent but largely unrelated massacre by Muslim mobs of one-quarter of the Christian population of Damascus, the author fails to register the uncomfortable fact that Muslim resentment of non-Muslims had been simmering since the 1856 Hatt-i Hümayun (Imperial Edict)—very briefly discussed elsewhere by Makdisi—in which the Ottoman sultan proclaimed, among other things, the equality of all his subjects regardless of religious affiliation.

Yet Makdisi excels when examining the Shidyaq affair. In particular, he shows how the framing of Shidyaq's story by American biographers changed markedly after the Druze-Maronite war of 1860. The initial narrative of Shidyaq's travails had taken shape even before his reported death in 1830. He was touted by missionaries who knew him, as well as the ABCFM that sent them to the Levant, as a martyr at the hands of a corrupt and unchristian Maronite patriarch, who represented Roman Catholic deceit and—to a lesser extent—Oriental decadence. For all their feelings of cultural superiority, the missionaries fashioned a narrative that focused on evangelism and personal redemption through conversion, situating the Shidyaq affair "within an established hagiographic tradition that dictated formulaic roles for Catholic persecutor and Protestant martyr."

But following the war of 1860 and the massacres in Damascus, the exemplary story of Shidyaq, which had already begun to alter in the telling, assumed an almost completely different thrust. From an evangelical tale of saving souls it became that of a mission civilisatrice—with nationalist and even racist overtones—in which enlightened American men and women delivered the Orient from ignorance, fanaticism, and violence. Makdisi attributes this sense of triumphalism to the aftermath of the war, which saw a chastened Ottoman Empire shrink before robust Western intervention, even as it tried to allay its critics by punishing Druze in Mount Lebanon and Muslims in Damascus

The author instructively contrasts the missionaries during this period with their predecessors. For one thing, millennialism no longer colored their outlook. But also, they had come to view Islam differently. In his Magnalia Christi Americana (1702), one of the works inspiring the early crop of missionaries, the Puritan historian Cotton Mather boasted of John Eliot, who had conducted missionary work among American Indians in the 17th century: "Our Eliot was no Mahometan." The reference was to the Islamic societal ideal, wherein those non-Muslim communities classified as "people of the book" are tolerated in exchange for their recognition of Muslim supremacy and their acceptance of various social disadvantages. The earliest American missionaries to the Levant, who arrived in 1820, shared Mather's disdain for "mingled" societies. A few decades later, however, American missionaries—appalled at Druze massacres of Maronites in Mount Lebanon and Muslim massacres of Christians in Damascus—were lamenting the intolerance of Islam and Muslims, whom they claimed could not peacefully coexist with others.

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